Like most newly elected officials, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy was enjoying a honeymoon with residents, with a high approval rating after ten months in office. Then his administration’s first crisis hit on Thursday, in the form of a rare autumn snowstorm. Chaos ensued, as the state and localities were slow to clear the roads and commuters and school buses got stranded. With pictures of sprawled-out students sleeping in school auditoriums and motorists stranded in cars making national headlines, Murphy was asked to explain the state’s ineffective response. He blamed the weatherman for not being precise enough with the forecast. A former local head of the National Weather Service demurred, claiming that the state’s response to the storm was “not a plan” but a “recipe for disaster.” Jersey’s largest paper has already concluded that the whole affair was “not Murphy’s finest hour,” but given how briefly he’s been in office, that doesn’t tell us much. Plagued by years of poor government, Jersey residents can only wonder what’s next.
Murphy had never held elected office before running for governor. He persuaded many of Jersey’s county Democratic leaders to support him by pledging to use the personal fortune he amassed working for Goldman Sachs to finance his primary campaign. Some $20 million later, Murphy is the governor of the nation’s 11th-largest state. The problem: while Jersey is a rich state, it’s not very well run. For years, it’s been rated one of the least well-managed of governments. Back in 2008, for instance, it earned a mere C+ rating from a joint study on the states by the Pew Center for State and Local Government and Governing magazine. The state embarrassed itself during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when managers at NJ Transit, the giant transportation agency, parked empty train cars below sea level, creating millions of dollars in unnecessary damage; and again when the agency promised the National Football League that it would use mass transit to move fans to and from the 2014 Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, only to strand thousands on freezing platforms.
Murphy came into office promising to use hundreds of millions of dollars in increased taxes to “invest” in fixing the state and its government. He also vowed to create the most “diverse” administration in the state’s history. In story after story about his new cabinet, he emphasized just how different his picks were, demographically speaking, from past governors’—so different, in fact, that one Jersey newspaper editorialized that if past administrations hadn’t reflected the state’s demographics, neither had Murphy’s. It hasn’t helped that the Democratic-led state legislature has launched a probe of Murphy’s hiring practices revolving around, at least in part, his employing a former campaign consultant as the state government’s “senior advisor on diversity, faith, urban and regional growth.”
None of this will matter much if the administration proves competent. It’s early yet, but yesterday was not encouraging. Forecasters had predicted a mid-November snowstorm of between four and six inches to hit around midday, but they warned that it might be larger. Murphy explained in a press conference that the state had mobilized some 1,800 pieces of equipment, but the storm proved more intense than predicted, and it hit when commuters and school buses were on the road, making plowing difficult. Murphy complained that the National Weather Service had surprised the state by switching the forecast at the last minute. “No one realized the gravity of what was to come,” he claimed, provoking a sharp rebuke from a top meteorologist who pointed to clear predictions of what was about to unfold. “You’re being scammed,” the meteorologist told a reporter in response to Murphy’s claims.
The press conference went so badly that Murphy cut it short. The state’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, provided an entire file of questionable Murphy claims from the event and noted that the woman Murphy had appointed as head of the state department of transportation, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, had previously operated a turnpike authority in Florida, a state that doesn’t get much snow. A reporter for the state’s public television station tweeted that in ten years of covering state government, he’d never seen a governor end a press conference about a major emergency in the state the way that Murphy did.
Not all of the fire was directed at the governor. The head of the New Jersey State Police also drew criticism when he decided at the same press conference to lecture residents about preparedness. “We do not like to hear that motorists are stranded for four or five hours,” he said, “but the responsibility and the ability to be prepared does fall somewhat on the motorist.” It sounds like New Jersey’s government is telling residents: you’re on your own.
Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office